Joe Holley’s Advice for Writing Effective Columns

Photo Credit: MIKEMARVINS

Today my students had a very special honor to get professional advice and wisdom from Joe Holley, columnist with the Houston Chronicle.

Joe Holley has been with the Chronicle since 2009, working on his dual-role as opinion writer: he is an editorial writer and keeps his “Native Texan” regular column.

During a guest lecture to COMM 4310 students, Holley described his dual and sometimes conflicting role as follows:

“In one of reader comments I have recently received, somebody told me ‘The only reason I subscribe to this wretched leftist paper rag is to read your column.’ I responded back “Do you know who writes the editorials of this leftist rag?”

Despite differences in writing editorials and columns, Holley spoke at large about commonalities. Here are some take away advice for young opinion writers:

  1. As a writer you need to have some sense of who your audience is!

“I worry that I might offend my audiences with my writing, thus I need to know them. Also knowing my audiences helps me choose the right cultural references,” said Holley.

  1. As I writer, I want to engage you!

This means making your audiences happy or sad or passionate. But you need to avoid boring your audiences. “I want you to know something more by the time you are done reading my column. Weather you love being entertained or informed, I want you to do something.”

  1. Both editorials and columns require sensitivity about how you write!

“You don’t want extra words in your opinion piece, it has to be tight. Especially avoid clichés!”

  1. You need to bring it from abstract to concrete!

“That helps you connect with your audience. You want your audience to see what you see, to smell what you smell, to hear what you hear. You need to show instead of tell!”

  1. Running helps deal with writing

“Once you are done with the writing part, go out and run. It will help you clear your ideas and come up with better ones. So, get up, leave it for a while, then come back to it again.”

  1. Be brave, if not outrageous!

“Find a way to connect with something your readers have not thought about”

  1. You need to read and read a lot!!

“This helps you write with a sense of authority,”

Finally, Holley claimed that the most important role of a columnist is to open a dialog and perhaps speak to people who think differently.

“Gun control will never happen in Texas. But, we want people to look at it in a different light. I wrote this piece knowing my audiences might not like to talk about it. But, we wanted to bring something to the reader that keeps them reading, something that resonates with them,” Holley discussed a recent editorial he wrote for the Houston Chronicle about the mass shooting in Las Vegas.

In fact, Joe Holley together with his colleague Evan Mintz, were the 2017 Pulitzer Prize finalists for their series of editorials on gun laws and gun culture in Texas. The nomination war for their editorials that combined with, eloquence and moral power in a fine brew of commonsense argumentation.”

Holley is originally from Waco, Texas. He got his degrees from Abilene Christian University, the University of Texas at Austin and Columbia University. He is also a former editor of the Texas Observer, a former editorial page editor and columnist for newspapers in San Antonio and San Diego and a staff writer for The Washington Post. He has been a regular contributor to Texas Monthly and Columbia Journalism Review and is the author of two books.

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NY Times webinar on Opinion Writing

New York Times op-ed columnist, Nicholas Kristof will host an online webinar on Tuesday, October 10th at 4pm. In this webinar he will talk about the art of writing arguments that raise awareness about global issues like disease, poverty and illiteracy.

You can Sign up here to join the webinar.

Nicholas Kristof has been a columnist for The New York Times since 2001. He grew up on a farm in Oregon, graduated from Harvard, studied law at Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar, and then studied Arabic in Cairo. He was a longtime foreign correspondent for The New York Times and speaks Chinese, Japanese and other languages.

Mr. Kristof has won two Pulitzer Prizes for his coverage of Tiananmen Square and the genocide in Darfur, along with many humanitarian awards such as the Anne Frank Award and the Dayton Literary Peace Prize. Mr. Kristof, who has lived on four continents and traveled to more than 150 countries, was The New York Times’s first blogger and has millions of followers across social media platforms.

I highly recommend you join!! Enjoy!

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Time to write your ‘Topic Column 1’

For this assignment, you need to pick one story from the recent news and write your personal point of view about it. The topics can come from local, nation or international news. They can cover political news or social issues. Stories from sports or arts section that touch on social issues are also acceptable.The objective of these two columns is: publication in the Daily Cougar or the Houston Chronicle. The assignment is worth 10% of your final grade.

 The objective of these two columns is: publication in the Daily Cougar or the Houston Chronicle.

Suggestions on how to write a great piece:

  • Write a column that is timely — tied to news (emphasis on NEW) events and ongoing debate on the issue you researched.
  • Write your column on a unique angle of the topic you researched. Review recent newspaper publications on this issue (The Daily Cougar and the Houston Chronicle) to see what’s been covered recently. Find a different angle.
  • Give me a great lead (opening paragraph) where you lay out your “point of view/thesis”; follow up with 2-3 paragraphs that each presents one argument supported by data and facts; end your column with a conclusion paragraph where you restate your point of view (and leave your audience with a take-away message).
  • Write your piece with your audiences in mind (UH students or Houstonians that read the Chronicle). In order to determine the density and choice of your arguments and facts, consider how receptive your audiences might be to your thesis (point of view).
  • Limit the use of first person (“I,” “me,” “my,” “we,” “our”) to personal stories that you include in the column. The rest of the column should be in third person voice.
  • Don’t start your column with “I hate ____________ at UH” and then rant about the issue for the rest of the piece. You need to be thoughtful, build arguments and supply plenty of evidence that support your arguments.
  • Write in short sentences.
  • Limit your column to 500-700 words.
  • Submit your column on Blackboard. No printed (e-mailed) copies will be accepted!!).
  • Due Date: October 9th, by 12:00 p.m.
  • Have fun. Energy, humanity, and creativity are rewarded in this business.

This story is worth 100 points and it will be evaluated based on:

  1. The relevance and timeliness of the topic you choose to write on.
  2. The originality of your approach to tackling the issue from a NEW angle.
  3. How well your column engages your reader by evoking logos/ethos/pathos.
  4. Column organization and argument structure.
  5. Thoroughness 1, number of arguments used to support your thesis.
  6. Thoroughness 2, number of sources you use to support your argument.
  7. Relevance of the facts used in your story. How well the facts you use support your arguments.
  8. The quality, coherence and accuracy of your writing; whether you follow standard style; and, finally, whether your grammar and spelling are flawless.

*Please take the time to read and re-read your story before submitting it to me. Double check all your spelling, especially the spelling of proper names.

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How eye-tracking research can help you build a more effective blog

Research suggests that online readers have different reading patterns form people who read printed media. First, they have a tendency to read fast. In a few seconds, your visitors’ eyes move at amazing speeds across your website’s thus making lightning-fast decisions about whether it is worth reading. Research suggests that on the average Web page, users have time to read at most 28% of the words during an average visit. Even though users tend to spend more time on pages with more information, the best-fit formula suggests that they spend only 4.4 seconds more for each additional 100 words.

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Second, web users spend 80% of their time looking at information above the page fold, and although they do scroll, they allocate only 20% of their attention below the fold. This data suggest that blog/web writer you shouldn’t ignore the fold and create endless pages for two reasons:

  • Long pages continue to be problematic because of users’ limited attention span. People prefer sites that get to the point and let them get things done quickly. Besides the basic reluctance to read more words, scrolling is extra work.
  • The real estate above the fold is more valuable than stuff below the fold for attracting and keeping users’ attention.

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Third, the pattern of gazing for content follows the F pattern. This knowledge comes from an eyetracking study that analyzed how 232 users consume content in thousands of Web pages. The findings suggest a dominant reading pattern looks somewhat like an F and follows these pattern:

  • Users first read in a horizontal movement, usually across the upper part of the content area. This initial element forms the F’s top bar.
  • Next, users move down the page a bit and then read across in a second horizontal movement that typically covers a shorter area than the previous movement. This additional element forms the F’s lower bar.
  • Finally, users scan the content’s left side in a vertical movement. Sometimes this is a fairly slow and systematic scan that appears as a solid stripe on an eyetracking heatmap. Other times users move faster, creating a spottier heatmap. This last element forms the F’s stem.

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This research has helped web designers create more effective web pages and blogs. Many guidelines on how to design your blog to facilitate online reading suggests are based on this research. The most important implications of the F Pattern for Web design show the importance of following the guidelines for writing for the Web instead of repurposing print content:

  • Users won’t read your text thoroughly in a word-by-word manner. Exhaustive reading is rare, especially when prospective customers are conducting their initial research to compile a shortlist of vendors. Yes, some people will read more, but most won’t.
  • The first two paragraphs must state the most important information. There’s some hope that users will actually read this material, though they’ll probably read more of the first paragraph than the second.
  • Start subheads, paragraphs, and bullet points with information-carrying words that users will notice when scanning down the left side of your content in the final stem of their F-behavior. They’ll read the third word on a line much less often than the first two words.

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How to of column writing 2 – The structure

Grilled-Chicken-Teriyaki-KebabHave you ever eaten a kebab? If you haven’t, you should! It’s delicious, visually appealing, and it’s versatile – you can make it whatever you want it to be, catering to your own tastes! The form of the kebab is always the same: it’s composed of a mixture of meats and vegetables on a stick, usually secured on both sides with a sturdy vegetable or piece of meat that keeps it all tied together!!

This a good way to start thinking about the structure of an opinion piece. A structured column follows the well-established formula: the lead/the beginning, the body/telling the story, and the summary/the ending. Whereas the body can be composed of a mix of arguments and facts (arranged to your own heart’s desire), the lead and the summary are usually the elements that tie it all together.

The Lead: How to begin?

A columnist depends on a strong lead to capture audience’s attention. The four to six lines of your opening paragraph will be crucial for your audiences to decide if they should spend time reading further. A  lead serves two objectives: 1. introduces your subject (the central theme) and the direction you are taking; and 2. it captures the attention of your readers. Thus, it should catalyze the ‘conversation’ by being odd, provocative, different, etc. Take a cue from the movies: Write cinematically. But, be brief!!

 “Type the point of your column in one sentence without a comma. If you cannot write it in one sentence, then you are not ready to write,” Derrick Jackson, The Boston Globe  

The body: Telling the story

The role of the body is to elaborate on your arguments and present your facts. The goal is to make your readers care about what you have to say and understand your point of view. The lead introduces an idea, each subsequent paragraph should build on that idea.

Elements of a nicely constructed body:

  1. Focus: What is the column’s purpose? How do you want the reader to feel? What do you want the reader to remember the most?
  2. Organization: Who, What, When, where, How, Why?
  3. Imagery: For each line written you ask: Does this sharpen the focus of my story? Each description must serve a purpose!
  4. Smooth transitions: It’s like a GPS, a tool to show your readers signposts and their own location. They serve to connect the beginning, the middle and the end.

The ending: summarizing with a kick

 A good ending must do three things (Bruce DeSilvia, Associated Press):

  • Tell the reader the story is over
  • Nail the central point of the story to the reader’s mind
  • The reader should hear it in their head when he puts the newspaper down. It should make the reader think!

If the leads are like “flashlights that shine down into the story,” then endings are “eternal flames that keep a story alive in a reader’s head and heart,” Standring (2008)

OK, now it’s time for dessert. Who wants some Oreo?

OREO graphic

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